By Sage Francis
There was a bang-on recent summary of the average product lifespan of your typical mainstream band that I'll attribute to Dave Simpson from The Guardian. Your first album is brimming with ideas and has that fresh style, you've made it. Second album is more of the same; though you haven't progressed at all, sales remain strong. A backlash is building and by the time your third album comes along you're all washed up. Next!
So for longevity's sake maybe it pays to stay underground right? Probably, but as Francis himself espoused back on 2003's Non Prophets album 'Hope', "A mill would be ill!". After signing to traditionally punk rock label Epitaph for his last album 'A Healthy Distrust', Francis seems to be looking to step it up a gear. Well at least it terms of units sold anyway. His lyrics on 'Undergound For Dummies' are telling, "Underground and mainstream/ Some are bound to change teams". Apparently some of these tracks will also be appearing on the soundtrack to upcoming Edward Norton / Colin Farrell film Pride And Glory.
For me however, most of the fun and enjoyment of his earlier music seems to have been swallowed up by his inflated sense of his own self-importance. To be fair to Francis it isn't a lack of progression that's turned me off, he is at least concerned with pushing his own limitations. What he has lost, compared to the earlier releases, is the ability to build songs that function cohesively, something more than just a collection of randomly assembled beats and samples with his lyrics on top. As such it's less of a hip hop album and more of a spoken word performance where there happens to be some (Endtroducing-lite) music in the background.
On his MySpace blog, Francis provides fans with a personal track-by-track rundown on the lyrics for the new album. Clearly the considered lyrics are his focus; his lines are generally well constructed and he is an effective storyteller. But, taking 'High Step' as an example, the depth that's flaunted by Epitaph ("He's the best lyricist of his generation") is not particularly in evidence here. Anyone who's watched an entire NFL game will be aware of the constant shadowy presence of religion within the sport. Francis' general point is "how people are encouraged to submit to authority" but the way he sets it out is uninspired and the broad swipe of his metaphor seems to undermine his focus (as his blog notes "You don't need to have a background in sports to understand what it's all about").
If I'm being over-critical here it's probably because there's a gaping opportunity for an intelligent, left-leaning, politically-aware rapper who relates to and operates within the guitar scene. Francis has already demonstrated that he has all of the credentials. The default theme in mainstream hip hop (take Clipse for example) is still living and loving the money-hungry thug lifestyle; misogyny is a must, drug dealing is smarter than a desk job, vendettas bubble with the frequent pledges to violence. What someone like Kanye West seems to appreciate is that it's not just the message that people are buying in to; it's the standout choruses, the hooks, the breaks. Sage Francis needs to spend more time away from the library and realise that it's not just a battle to the smartest line that wins the contest any more.